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Newsline - December 10, 2007


PUTIN ENDORSES MEDVEDEV AS SUCCESSOR
President Vladimir Putin on December 10 backed the proposed nomination of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him as president when his term end in March 2008, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. Putin reportedly met with the leaders of Unified Russia, A Just Russia, the Agrarian Party, and Civic Force, and they proposed that all four parties would nominate and support Medvedev. "I completely and fully support this candidacy," Putin was quoted as saying. Medvedev, along with fellow First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, has long been touted as one of the leading candidates to succeed Putin. As first deputy prime minister, he has overseen the so-called national projects, which are intended to improve the health care, education, agriculture, and housing sectors. RC

KASYANOV NOMINATED FOR PRESIDENTIAL RACE
Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was nominated on December 8 by the Russian Popular Democratic Union (RNDC) as its candidate for the March 2, 2008, presidential election, Russian media reported. Kasyanov told supporters that his talks with other opposition groups about backing one candidate in the election have not met with success. He said Yabloko and the Republican Party have not yet determined a strategy, while the Other Russia coalition plans to back the candidate of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov. The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) has expressed interest in a coalition with the RNDC, but talks have not proceeded far. The SPS is expected to put forward party Political Council member Boris Nemtsov as its candidate. RC

OFFICIAL DUMA RESULTS PUBLISHED
The Central Election Commission on December 8 published the official results of the December 2 Duma elections, Russian media reported. According to the commission, Unified Russia won 64.30 percent of the vote (315 seats), followed by the Communist Party with 11.57 percent (57 seats), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) with 8.14 percent (40 seats), and A Just Russia with 7.74 percent (38 seats). The remaining parties failed to surmount the 7 percent barrier required to earn seats in the legislature: the Agrarian Party (2.3 percent), Yabloko (1.59 percent), Civic Force (1.05 percent), the Union of Rightist Forces (0.96 percent), Patriots of Russia (0.89 percent), the Social Justice Party (0.22 percent), and the Democratic Party of Russia (0.13 percent). The official turnout was 63 percent. The Communist Party, which is preparing numerous challenges to the election results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007), has announced it will hold nationwide protests against the results on December 22. RC

ANOTHER BILLIONAIRE ENTERS FEDERATION COUNCIL
Billionaire businessman Suleiman Kerimov was confirmed on December 10 as the representative of the legislature of Daghestan in the Federation Council, gazeta.ru reported. Kerimov replaces Atai Aliyev, who reportedly asked to be replaced. However, a unnamed source told the website that the republican administration pressured Aliyev to step down in order to open the post for "such a major potential investor." Kerimov, who has an estimated worth of $14 billion, is still recuperating from injuries suffered when he crashed his Ferrari at high speed in the French city of Nice in November 2006. Kerimov quit the LDPR last summer and supported Unified Russia in the December 2 Duma elections. RC

PETERSBURG HOME FOR CONSTITUTIONAL COURT NEARLY COMPLETED
The Constitutional Court is expected to complete its move from Moscow to St. Petersburg in late spring or early summer of 2008, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and other Russian media reported on December 10. The court will be located in the imperial Synod and Senate buildings on Palace Square, and repairs to the buildings are nearly completed, "Moskovsky komsomolets" reported on December 10. The buildings will also house the country's presidential library, according to the daily. RC

SCHOLARS TO STUDY 'SOVEREIGN DEMOCRACY'
Chelyabinsk State University has established a Center for Constitutional-Legal Studies of the Problems of Sovereign Democracy, gazeta.ru reported on December 10. "Sovereign democracy" is a term coined by Kremlin ideologist and deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov to describe Russia's unique path of democratic development. The center is devoted to the study of "the mechanisms of realizing the concept of sovereign democracy." The center will publish its first monograph, "Sovereign Democracy As The Constitutional Idea of Contemporary Russia," in the spring. Valerian Lebedev, dean of the law department at Chelyabinsk State University, told gazeta.ru that the concept of sovereign democracy will be developed in opposition to traditional Western notions of democratic values. "Why should all disputes be settled in the European Court [of Human Rights] when half of our country isn't in Europe, but in Asia," he said. "We need to create, say, a Eurasian Humanitarian Court. Why shouldn't we create a unified moral-political space with our neighboring former republics?" RC

RUSSIA WANTS NUCLEAR PARITY WITH UNITED STATES
First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said on December 7 that his country needs parity in nuclear weapons with the United States, Russian news agencies reported. He argued that "military potential, to say nothing of nuclear potential, must be at the proper level if we want...just to stay independent. The weak are not loved and not heard, they are insulted. When we have parity they will talk to us in a different way." He told a meeting of a Soviet-era military-industrial commission to mark its 50th anniversary that former U.S. Defense Secretary "Donald Rumsfeld, who had spent his childhood in Chicago, which is famous for its mobsters, told me, 'they listen better to your arguments if you don't just smile, but also hide a gun in your bosom.'" Ivanov noted that Russia is able to produce annually six or seven Topol-M (SS-27) intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can be mobile or based in silos (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14 and October 26, 2007). Ivanov also praised the former Soviet ministry in charge of the nuclear weapons program for achieving nuclear parity with the United States by the late 1970s. PM

ROCKET FORCES TEST FIRE BALLISTIC MISSILE
The U.S. State Department announced in Washington on December 8 that top U.S. and Russian missile-policy experts will meet in Budapest on December 13 to continue their discussions of missile defense, news agencies reported. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation John Rood and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak will lead the talks. On December 8, Russian Rocket Forces spokesman Aleksandr Vovk told RIA Novosti that the Russian military successfully test-fired a RS-12M Topol ballistic missile (SS-25, or Sickle) from the Kapustin Yar firing range in southern Russia the same day. He added that the test involved trying out new, unspecified equipment that Moscow hopes will render Washington's missile-defense systems useless. The last test of such a SS-25 was on October 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2007). On December 9, Colonel General Vladimir Popovkin, who commands the Federal Space Forces, said that Russia placed a Kosmos-2434 military satellite into orbit from the Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan by means of a Proton-M rocket, RIA Novosti reported. PM

NATO, RUSSIA ENTER 'CHALLENGING PHASE'
Following the Brussels meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on December 7, NATO foreign ministers said in a statement that they want to work with Moscow on Kosova and arms-related issues but acknowledge that there are growing difficulties in the relationship, news agencies reported. The statement noted that "10 years after the signing of the NATO-Russian Founding Act, this partnership has entered a challenging phase.... We value and want to continue our constructive and frank dialogue with Russia, including on issues on which we disagree." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "we will continue to negotiate and hope a joint agreement will be reached." He also raised objections to future NATO enlargement. Lavrov argued that "we wouldn't like a project from the political past -- and that is exactly what NATO's eastward expansion is -- to become reality. We're certain that it doesn't help strengthen our common security or fight common threats, but it can result in new dividing lines drawn in Europe or even dividing lines inside individual countries, which all of us, of course, want to avoid." He added that "not everything is clear to us with regard to certain NATO actions, including those close to our borders, I mean the modernization of military infrastructure in the Baltic countries and the setting up of U.S. bases in Romania and Bulgaria. The motives for these actions are simply not clear to us, and we had a frank discussion with our partners about it today. Such steps only complicate arms control in Europe." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 10 that Washington will block a Russia-NATO cooperation program unless Moscow drops its planned suspension of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). "The Wall Street Journal" argued on December 10 that "relations between Moscow and the West have been poor lately, but they are headed for new lows this month as the diplomatic wrangling over independence for...Kosovo enters its endgame...[as part of] a wide-ranging diplomatic test of wills between Moscow and the West. Those disagreements range from how hard to press Iran to abandon its nuclear-fuel program, to expansion of [NATO], and to [introducing] U.S. missile defense" into Poland and the Czech Republic. PM

RUSSIAN NAVY COMPLETES ATLANTIC EXERCISE, MOVES TO MEDITERRANEAN
An attack group of the Russian Navy completed exercises with aircraft of the Northern Fleet and the strategic aviation forces in the North Atlantic and moved on to the Mediterranean, Interfax reported on December 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2007). The core of the group consists of the heavy aircraft carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov" and the destroyers "Admiral Levchenko" and "Admiral Chabanenko." Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said on December 5 at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin that Russia will resume naval exercises in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. PM

HUNGARY STRESSES 'PRAGMATISM' IN RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA
Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said in Budapest on December 7 that he is "committed to improving cooperation between Russia and Hungary despite any arguments" regarding the fairness of the recent Russian parliamentary elections, news agencies reported. He made the remarks after meeting with his Russian counterpart Viktor Zubkov. Gyurcsany noted that there are differences in "political thinking" between the two countries. He stressed nonetheless that "Hungary is among the countries in the EU that depend most on energy supplies from Russia. Our policy is pragmatic, taking into account the joint interests of Hungary and Russia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13 and 23, September 18, and November 26, 2007). He added that Hungary is seeking to diversify its energy supplies even though Russia has been a "trustworthy partner and balanced provider" in recent years. Gyurcsany said that "at the moment, we have only one supplier and one pipeline, which is a risk. This is why we are looking for alternatives. [The EU's] Nabucco and [Gazprom's] South Stream are both possibilities." Zubkov said that "Russia is a reliable partner and will fulfill all of its obligations." Hungary's main center-right opposition party, Fidesz, has criticized the Gyurcsany government in recent years for allegedly being too close to Moscow. The two prime ministers reportedly did not discuss the Russian elections, despite demands by Fidesz that they do so. PM

RENAULT TO BUY QUARTER OF RUSSIA'S BIGGEST CAR MAKER
The French car maker Renault agreed to buy a quarter of Russia's biggest auto maker, AvtoVAZ, Renault Chief Financial Officer Thierry Moulonguet said on December 8 according to news agencies in Paris and Moscow. He noted that the Russian market could reach up to 4 million cars by 2015. Moulonguet declined to state the price Renault paid but said the market value of AvtoVAZ is $5.7 billion. Renault and AvtoVAZ plan to make a car costing about $15,000 to tap into Russia's booming car market and will boost total car production to 1.5 million units per year. The daily "Kommersant" reported on December 10 that many details in the agreement remain open. AvtoVAZ Chairman Sergei Chemezov and Renault Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn signed only a memorandum of understanding on December 8. Chemezov said that Renault's offer was attractive because of the price and the French company's willingness to "preserve the Lada brand." PM

FORMER DAGHESTAN LAWMAKER SLAIN
In the early morning hours of December 10, former Daghestan republican legislator Gaidimagomed Magomedov was shot and killed in the village of Gimry in Untsukulsky Raion, the Regnum news agency reported. On December 1, an explosive device was found and safely disarmed outside Magomedov's home in the same region. RC

ARMENIAN SEISMOLOGIST CONCERNED OVER URBAN CONSTRUCTION
In a statement coinciding with the 19th anniversary of Armenia's devastating 1988 earthquake that killed at least 25,000 people, Alvaro Antonian, the head of Armenia's state National Seismic Defense Service (NSDS), on December 7 expressed concerns over the recent boom in urban construction, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Antonian warned that many of the new residential and office buildings recently constructed in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, may not be adequately resistant to earthquakes. The large-scale destruction from the 1988 earthquake was largely due to the poor construction of Soviet-era buildings and houses that were not properly designed and were often built in violation of basic safety standards. Antonian added that Yerevan would be especially vulnerable to another earthquake, and criticized the construction industry for preferring "quick profits" over safety and thorough urban planning. RG

AZERBAIJANI POLICE DETAIN WIFE OF JAILED JOURNALIST
Azerbaijani police on December 7 detained Malahat Nasibova, the wife of jailed RFE/RL journalist Ilgar Nasibov, in the region of Naxchivan, RFE/RL reported. Nasibova, who is also a correspondent for both RFE/RL and Turan, was brought to the Naxchivan headquarters of the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry for "questioning" before being released a short time later. Nasibov was detained on December 6 after a Naxchivan court sentenced him to three months' pretrial detention on charges of insulting a police officer, stemming from a letter he wrote protesting alleged police brutality (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). Naxchivan police on December 6 also searched the offices of a nongovernmental human rights organization Nasibova heads and seized several computers and documents, Turan reported. Responding to both incidents, the U.S. State Department issued a statement on December 8 saying that it is "deeply disturbed" by the detentions of both journalists, adding that the moves demonstrate the deteriorating conditions for of media freedom there, AFP reported. RG

INDEPENDENT GEORGIAN TV CHANNEL TO RESUME BROADCASTING 'IN A FEW DAYS'
Giorgi Targamadze, an official of Georgia's independent Imedi-TV television channel, announced on December 8 that the station will resume broadcasting "in a few days," according to Imedi Radio and Caucasus Press. Targamadze explained that the delay is due to the damage to the station's television equipment as a result of a police raid that shut down the facility on November 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2007). He also said that television broadcasts will initially be limited to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, although the broadcaster has already resumed radio programming. A court recently ruled that the frozen assets of the Imedi broadcasting company must be released, allowing the company to resume television broadcasting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). RG

GEORGIAN TYCOON OFFICIALLY REGISTERED AS PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
The Georgian Central Election Commission announced on December 9 that it has formally registered billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili as an opposition candidate in Georgia's presidential elections, scheduled for January, AFP reported. The commission also announced on December 8 that it has finished the formal compilation of a revised voter list, consisting of nearly 3.4 million registered voters, Caucasus Press reported. Before the deadline for the registration of candidates expired on December 10, the commission also approved the candidacy of Gia Maisashvili, from the Party of the Future, bringing the total field of presidential aspirants to seven. The other candidates include outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili, Shalva Natelashvili of the Labor Party, David Gamkrelidze from the New Rightists party, and the opposition coalition's Levan Gachechiladze. RG

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT, FOREIGN MINISTER MEET WITH VISITING EU ENVOY
Acting Georgian President Nino Burjanadze and Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili met on December 8 in Tbilisi with EU special representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby, according to Caucasus Press and Rustavi-2 television. The Georgian leaders briefed Semneby on the preparations for the early presidential election, set for January 5, and discussed the role of the EU in the "process of the democratic development of Georgia." Burjanadze also informed Semneby that she instructed Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili to implement measures aimed at ensuring a transparent election, including a revised voter list and improved media monitoring. She also promised that the Georgian authorities "will do all possible to ensure the presence of foreign observers at every polling station." For his part, Semneby welcomed the reopening of popular independent television channel Imedi-TV, saying that "we are particularly happy that the acting president took the situation and our recommendations close to heart." RG

KAZAKH PRESIDENT HOPES DISPUTE OVER CASPIAN OIL FIELD CAN BE RESOLVED 'SOON'...
Speaking at a news conference in Astana, Nursultan Nazarbaev said on December 7 that a dispute with an international consortium operating the offshore Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea could be easily resolved in a "peaceful way" if the consortium chooses to compensate Kazakhstan for alleged environmental violations and other problems, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He stressed that Kazakhstan does not feel the need to insist on "changing the operator" of the field, referring to the Italian energy company Eni, which heads the international consortium in charge of developing the field. Nazarbaev also held out hope that the long-running dispute will be resolved soon, offering to "sit at the negotiating table and discuss the mistakes that have been made, the achievements that have been scored, and will outline our further actions." In addition to financial compensation, Kazakhstan is also seeking a greater share in the international consortium beyond the 8 percent stake currently held by the Kazakh state-owned KazMunaiGaz group. The consortium of mainly Western oil companies led by Eni has been in negotiations with the Kazakh authorities to resolve long-standing disputes stemming from cost overruns and productions delays at Kashagan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 22, 2007). In August, the government suspended work at Kashagan for three months due to alleged violations of environmental-protection laws (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007) and last month threatened "to take appropriate measures to protect the economic interests of the country" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 5, 2007). The projected total cost for developing Kashagan has more than doubled from initial estimates of $57 billion to $136 billion. Kashagan holds between 7 billion and 9 billion tons of proven reserves, making it the largest oil field discovered in the last three decades and the fourth- or fifth-largest deposit in the world. Kazakhstan also recently introduced a revised energy law granting the government greater authority over the work of international energy companies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007). RG

...AND CALLS ON RUSSIA TO OFFER 'MORE ENERGY EXPORT OPPORTUNITIES'
In remarks at the same Astana press conference, Kazakh President Nazarbaev called on December 7 for Russia to provide "more energy export opportunities," according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. He stressed that Kazakhstan's energy policy is "multifaceted," adding that Kazakhstan will utilize Russian export routes only "if the Russian side will continue to provide us with more opportunities," and warned that the country may also consider the trans-Caspian Aqtau-Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route. He explained that his demand for greater Russian flexibility is not rooted in "politics" but reflects "an economic interest." RG

KAZAKH COURT IMPOSES HARSH PRISON SENTENCES FOR 'ETHNIC' CLASH
A Kazakh district court on December 7 imposed severe prison sentences for three men convicted of "hooliganism" stemming from an "ethnic clash" between Kazakhs and ethnic Chechens that left five people dead, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The court in Taldykorgan, the administrative center of the Almaty region, sentenced Kayrat Batyrkhanov and Bakhyt Sarsenbaev to 10 years in prison and Azamat Sadykov to 12 years. The clash, involving around 50 people, took place in March in a village in the Almaty district and resulted in the destruction of a farm owned by an ethnic-Chechen family by a large group of local Kazakhs, although Kazakh officials were quick to downplay the ethnic component of the incident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). RG

KYRGYZ COURT RULES IN FAVOR OF OPPOSITION CHALLENGE AGAINST STATE MEDIA
A court in Bishkek ruled on December 7 in favor of a legal challenge lodged by the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party against Kyrgyz state television, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The court ordered state television to grant the party the "equal right of access to airtime" for the campaign period for the December 16 parliamentary elections. Ata-Meken argued that officials of the state-affiliated National Television and Radio Corporation "violated their right to equal access" by denying them airtime during evening programming, according to the 24.kg website. The party also recently submitted a formal report to President Kurmanbek Bakiev documenting a series of "grave violations" and assorted "threats" against opposition activists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007), calling on the president, as "a guarantor of the constitution," to implement "measures against these incidents and to ensure transparency and legality in the election." Ata-Meken and several other opposition parties also recently threatened to launch a nationwide "boycott" of the elections to protest the authorities' use of "administrative resources" against the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4 and 6, 2007). RG

PROMINENT KYRGYZ OPPOSITION FIGURE DENIES FLEEING COUNTRY
Speaking to reporters from neighboring Kazakhstan, Edil Baisalov, a prominent member of the Kyrgyz opposition Social Democratic Party, on December 8 denied reports that he "fled" Kyrgyzstan, according to AKIpress. Baisalov said that he left the country "legally" and for only a short time on a long-planned visit to Almaty. He went on to dismiss a recent statement by Tursunbek Akun, the head of the Kyrgyz presidential Human Rights Commission, in which he criticized Baisalov for allegedly fleeing the country. The Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office recently launched a criminal investigation against Baisalov for allegedly "obstructing elections and inflicting material damage on the state," after he posted pictures of a sample ballot to be used in the December 16 parliamentary elections on his personal website (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). The Central Election Commission also recently rejected his candidacy in those elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2007). RG

TAJIK JUDGE IDENTIFIES SUSPECTS IN SUPREME COURT BLAST
Savriddin Toshev, a judge in a Dushanbe district court, on December 7 identified two men suspected of carrying out the June bombing near the Tajik Supreme Court, the "Avesta" website reported. Toshev said that the two men, Uzbek citizen Hasan Simirkhanov and Tajik citizen Komiljon Eshonqulov, are being investigated by the State Committee on National Security. Both men are currently jailed for other offenses. According to the judge, Simirkhanov, the alleged mastermind of the bombing, allegedly entered Tajikistan by illegally crossing the Tajik-Uzbek border and succeeded in graduating from the Tajik police academy and later working "for several years" in the Interior Ministry. No one was hurt in the bombing of the Supreme Court building in Dushanbe, and investigators linked the incident to a series of explosions in January and June 2005 attributed to the outlawed extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). The bombing also coincided with the first anniversary of three smaller explosions in different places in Dushanbe, which also did not result in any injuries. RG

TAJIK PRESIDENT VISITS TURKMENISTAN, SIGNS AGREEMENTS
In Ashgabat on a state visit, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon met on December 9 with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Asia-Plus and Turkmen Television reported. A joint Tajik-Turkmen working group also met separately on December 9 to finalize the details of a set of five bilateral agreements, including accords on double taxation and investment, transport, and civil aviation, which the two leaders signed later the same day, ITAR-TASS reported. Rahmon's state visit is a reciprocal visit, following the visit to Tajikistan by the Turkmen president in October. RG

HIGH TURNOUT REPORTED IN TURKMEN LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS
The chairman of the Turkmen Central Election Commission, Myrat Garryyev, reported on December 9 that an estimated 98.58 percent of the country's 2.7 million eligible voters participated in elections for the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), ITAR-TASS reported. He noted that the turnout exceeded that for the February presidential election, which was reported as having a 94 percent turnout. The contest featured candidates running for seats in the 2,500-member top legislative body, but was monitored only by local election observers, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. RG

BELARUSIAN POPULAR FRONT ELECTS NEW CHAIRMAN
The opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) on December 9 elected Lyavon Barshcheuski as its new chairman, Belapan reported. Nearly 250 delegates who met at the BNF convention on December 8 and 9 in Minsk failed to elect a new leader during the first day of the convention. Vintsuk Vyachorka and Ales Mikhalevich, two nominees for the post, each won about 50 percent of the vote, but neither managed to cross the 50 percent threshold required by the BNF's charter. Vyachorka and Mikhalevich then withdrew their candidacies and put forward Barshcheuski as a compromise candidate to avoid splitting the BNF. Barshcheuski was a lawmaker in the Belarusian legislature between 1990 and 1995 and an acting chairman of the BNF between 1995 and 1999. "We respect the principles of the coalition [of United Pro-Democratic Forces], but we care for the BNF first of all," Barshcheuski said after his election. "We want it to remain one of the symbols of the independence of modern Belarus," he added. AM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SAYS VENEZUELA IS 'STRATEGIC PARTNER'
During an official visit to Venezuela on December 7 and 8, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said that Venezuela is one of Belarus's most consistent political allies and economic partners, Belapan reported. "We can say that cooperation between our countries has reached the level of strategic partnership," Lukashenka said during a meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez. Chavez accused Washington of creating obstacles for the Venezuelan and Belarusian governments, seeking to suppress freedom of thought, imposing "neoliberalism," and trying to prevent the presidents of both countries from carrying out social projects. Lukashenka and Chavez signed an agreement on military technical cooperation and attended the signing of agreements on the development of trade and economic relations; avoidance of double taxation; prevention of income and property tax evasion; mutual protection and encouragement of investments; cooperation in crime prevention, education, and scientific research; visa-free travel; and cooperation in the cultural sphere. AM

BELARUS DENIES REPORTS THAT UNION STATE CONSTITUTION WILL BE SIGNED SOON
Pavel Lyohki, a spokesman for President Lukashenka, on December 7 denied media reports that Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin will sign the Constitutional Act of the Belarusian-Russian Union State during their mid-December meeting in Minsk, Belapan reported. Lyohki's statement contradicts reports aired by Russia'S Ekho Moskvy radio that the presidents will soon sign the Constitutional Act. "This obscure information came as a surprise to Belarus," Lyohki said. "Since it appeared in the Russian media, I advise you to approach the Russian side for comment," he added. Pavel Borodin, Russia's state secretary for the Belarusian-Russian Union State, earlier said that the meeting between Lukashenka and Putin will focus on a draft of a Constitutional Act for the proposed union state. AM

TYMOSHENKO ANNOUNCES PRIORITIES OF NEW UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT
Yulia Tymoshenko, the party leader nominated by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko for the post of prime minister, met on December 7 with ambassadors of EU member states and informed them of the new Ukrainian government's priorities, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko said that the main goals of the government under her leadership will be energy security, judicial reform, improvement of the investment climate in Ukraine, and active social policy. Tymoshenko said that the new government will take advantage of Ukraine's expanding relations with the EU. "I believe in the European future of Ukraine," she said. The Verkhovna Rada is expected to approve Tymoshenko as prime minister on December 11. AM

NATO AWAITS TIMELY FORMATION OF UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on December 7 said that Ukraine conducted its preterm parliamentary elections in a democratic manner, and that NATO is now waiting for the formation of the new Ukrainian government, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "The Ukrainian nation has made its political choice in a democratic manner," de Hoop Scheffer said. He praised Ukraine's participation in NATO missions and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's efforts to adapt the armed forces to Euro-Atlantic standards, adding that he expects Ukraine to continue its reforms in the defense and security sectors. AM

UN RECEIVES REPORT ON KOSOVA TALKS
The three international mediators who chaired direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina on Kosova's future submitted their report on the negotiations to the UN's secretary-general on December 7, three days before the scheduled deadline. They indicated previously that the report would merely detail the course of talks and the options debated, rather than produce recommendations on Kosova's status and what steps could now be taken. The UN Security Council will discuss the report, which reportedly runs to four pages and contains 15 points, on December 19. Russia has made clear it will press for direct talks to continue. That position was reiterated on December 7 by Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, who told reporters that while the direct talks were not "a complete success," they were a "very worthwhile exercise" that produced "some serious results." Churkin said Moscow was "particularly impressed" by the "creative, courageous, and far-reaching" proposals made by Serbia, and that the last 12 days of the discussions produced more than the 15 months of discussions mediated by the UN's special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari. The United States and the EU argue that further talks would serve no purpose. The question of Kosova's future is expected to dominate a meeting of EU foreign ministers to be held on December 10 and to feature prominently in a summit of EU leaders on December 14. Serbia's foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, held a final, prereport meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and ambassadors of members of the Security Council on December 6. The previous day, he visited Britain, which is seeking to persuade other EU states to back independence for Kosova. Kosovar politicians stayed in Europe, with President Fatmir Sejdiu and other leaders spending December 5-6 in Spain. Spain is thought to continue to harbor doubts about independence for Kosova, but its importance also lies in its current chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been seeking to strengthen Kosova's institutions since the UN assumed responsibility for Kosova in 1999. AG

TALK OF WAR REJECTED BY SERBIAN PRESIDENT
President Boris Tadic and a range of ministers from his Democrat Party (DS) have lined up in recent days to throw cold water on the idea that Serbia could go to war over Kosova. That possibility was raised by an adviser to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Aleksandar Simic, who said on December 5 that Serbia should defend its claim to Kosova with "all available means" if Kosovar Albanian leaders unilaterally declare independence. Simic argued that while Serbia's "bad experience" in the 1990s made it understandable that "there is a lot of caution and patience now," he argued that "state interests are also defended by war" and "there is nothing else left for countries to do" when "someone doesn't respect the [UN] Security Council," which, he argues, Kosova would be doing by declaring independence. The Serbian Orthodox Church's senior cleric, Bishop Artimeje, has also said Serbia should be prepared to put on a show of force to warn Kosova off declaring independence, stating in an open letter published in the Serbian media on December 4 that Serbia should mobilize army reservists, close down Kosova's borders, and hold mass rallies ahead of any move by Kosova. However, Tadic said in a radio interview on December 7 that "war and violence would, for sure, jeopardize the possibility that Kosovo could remain part of Serbia and also the basic interests of the people," adding that "all those who are calling for violence and war" are also "jeopardizing our kinsmen who are living in Kosovo and particularly those in enclaves." Even the deeply nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) rejected Simic's comments. "We are not for war. We are for a solution that can ultimately be found in line with Russia's position," a deputy for the SRS, Dragan Todorovic, told the broadcaster B92. Todorovic was referring to Russia's position that the international community must be guided by UN Security Council 1244, which in 1999 mandated the UN to administer Kosova but also spoke of Serbian sovereignty over Kosova. Tadic's DS, Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), and the SRS all base their views on that resolution. The partner of the DS and DSS in the governing coalition, G17 Plus, has called on Kostunica to dismiss Simic as his adviser. Serbia has yet to decide what steps it might take if Kosova presses ahead with its bid for independence, but Foreign Minister Jeremic told the Serbian parliament on December 4 that its "toughest" response would be to cut "diplomatic ties with countries that would move to unilaterally recognize the province." AG

NATO REAFFIRMS COMMITMENT TO KOSOVA...
The 26 foreign ministers of NATO members underscored their commitment to maintaining peace as the contested Serbian province prepares to enter a crucial period. "NATO will respond resolutely to any attempts to disrupt the safety and security of any of the people of Kosovo," the ministers said in a statement released after their meeting in Brussels on December 7. At present, NATO has around 16,000 troops in the province, but it is prepared to strengthen the force by deploying more British, French, and Italian troops. Germany recently sent a battalion to Kosova. The meeting also contained a political message, with NATO spokesman James Appathurai calling for "managed and controlled" change in Kosova, words that echo the EU's call for Kosova not to declare independence unilaterally but instead to consult its decisions and coordinate its actions with the international community. The NATO statement urged "both parties to refrain from making acts or statements that could undermine the security situation," a general comment that had extra resonance coming, as it did, a day after Serbian government adviser Simic said Serbia should be prepared to go to war to retain sovereignty over Kosova. NATO leaders also held a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Kosova. Lavrov emerged from the meeting, which reportedly lasted longer than scheduled, to warn that a unilateral move toward independence by Kosova would create "a very slippery downward slope" by setting a precedent for other separatist regions. AG

...AS VIOLENCE MARS UNMIK VISIT...
The head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, and NATO's commander in Kosova, Xavier De Marnhac, were forced to make a speedy exit when they visited the town of Gorazdevac on December 7. According to local media, the incident occurred when an ethnic Serb, shouting, "this is Serbia, not Albania," began scuffling with a NATO soldier. Some reports suggest a stone was thrown at the soldier. Dozens of other Serbs became involved and during the ensuing melee, Ruecker and de Marnhac were whisked away by helicopter. Several Serbs were reported to have been injured. The Kosovar Albanian daily "Koha ditore" on December 8 quoted Ruecker as saying the incident was "unacceptable" and that "I was told this is a direct threat from Belgrade"; according to other media, Ruecker said, "this threat is very much influenced by Belgrade." The NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosova, KFOR, described the incident as a fight between Kosovar Serbs. "We cannot protect Serbs if they have disagreements among each other," local media quoted de Marnhac as saying. In the wake of the incident, the Serbian National Council, a group representing hard-line Kosovar Serbs, demanded the "Serbophobic" Ruecker's dismissal and urged Serbia to "undertake the most concrete measures to protect the Serbian people in the whole Serbian territory," local media reported on December 7. AG

...AND BUSES AGAIN TARGETED IN KOSOVA
A busload of Serbs was stopped by masked gunmen as they headed toward the Kosovar capital, Prishtina, on December 6. The gunmen took the keys to the bus but reportedly did nothing else. The bus continued on its journey under armed escort after a replacement set of keys was supplied. "Nobody was hurt, and we do not have any indications that the attack was ethnically motivated," a police spokesman, Veton Elshani, said on December 7. What the motivation was remains unclear. Serbian media quoted passengers as saying that the gunmen were members of Albanian National Army (AKSh), a group described as a "terrorist" organization by the UNMIK. However, the bus's operator, Adios Tours, suggested that the incident could be the work of "somebody from a competing company trying to scare away our drivers and passengers." Less than two weeks ago, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at another Adios Tour bus. The Serbian news agency Tanjug said at the time that this was the third attack on the company's buses, but gave no time period (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). AG

SERBS RETAIN CONTROL OF KOSOVAR TOWNS DESPITE BOYCOTT
Despite boycotting local and parliamentary elections held on November 17, Kosovar Serbs will be allowed to retain control of five municipalities. In four towns -- Leposavic, Strpce, Zubin Potok, and Zvecan -- UNMIK head Ruecker will directly appoint ethnic Serbs as mayors. In another, Novo Brdo, Ruecker will appoint a Kosovar Albanian, but the local council will remain under the control of ethnic Serbs. Ruecker described the appointments as a temporary move for six months. He did not indicate what will happen after that. By that stage, the EU hopes to have replaced UNMIK as the administrator of Kosova. Second-round runoff mayoral elections were held in 24 towns across Kosova on December 8, but the results have yet to be announced. AG

HOME OF KARADZIC BODYGUARD RAIDED...
In the latest of a flurry of recent raids aimed at gleaning information that could lead to the capture of Radovan Karadzic, international troops on December 6 raided the home of the bodyguard of the former Bosnian Serb leader (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, and November 5 and 20, 2007). Mile Savcic also served as Karadzic's driver. During the five-hour search, troops belonging to the EU-led force in Bosnia (EUFOR), seized documents and some ammunition. Despite a large number of recent raids on the homes of people suspected of helping Karadzic evade capture, there has been no indication that authorities in the region or the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are close to identifying his whereabouts. Serbia's war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, was quoted by the daily "Blic" on December 6 as saying that the Serbian authorities believe Karadzic is in Bosnia, Montenegro, or Kosova. Most of the publicized efforts to find Karadzic have been in Bosnia, Montenegro, and areas of Serbia controlled by Belgrade. The ICTY's main immediate hope is that Karadzic's military commander, Ratko Mladic, will soon be captured. However, Vukcevic said that it is "not likely" that Mladic will be captured this year. Vukcevic also said Mladic "has no support from the army," usually seen as Mladic's main base of support, and that his "network of helpers is diminishing." AG

...AS CONTROVERSY OVER KARADZIC HUNT MAKES FRESH HEADLINES
The controversy over the international community's commitment to capturing Karadzic was again headline news on December 8, when, in an interview with the Serbian daily "Blic," former ICTY spokeswoman Florence Hartmann claimed that the ICTY informed the Serbian authorities in January 2004 that Karadzic was in Belgrade undergoing an operation and that "some government members that were in charge of the police were ready to arrest him and were in contact with France to transfer him to The Hague." However, the planned operation was blocked by the United States. Hartmann also claimed that when, a few days later, Karadzic was spotted close to the Bosnian border, the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia deliberately warned Karadzic by flying a helicopter over the area. Hartmann said three efforts to capture Karadzic in 12 years were "just for show," and that "a few countries" -- particularly the United States, Britain, and France -- created major obstacles to the capture of Karadzic. Hartmann has made similar claims before in recently published memoirs, but the timing of the interview is sensitive, because the ICTY's outgoing chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, will on December 10 make her last report to the UN Security Council on Serbia's cooperation with the ICTY, and she said on December 6 that she will try and persuade the EU not to deepen its relationship with Serbia until Mladic is captured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 12, and 21, and October 5 and 17, 2007). Two days before Hartmann's interview, on December 6, Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vukcevic said that Karadzic's wife "confirmed that [Karadzic] was in Belgrade in 2004," but he added that "it was learned only later that he was here." AG

PROTESTS LEND MOMENTUM TO IRANIAN STUDENTS' STRUGGLE
They may not be quite like the heady student protests of years past. But fresh rallies and a flurry of arrests in Iran suggest that the student movement is gaining steam for yet another push for change in the Islamic republic.

Student rallies began to gain momentum in early December. But they appear to be part of a wave of open dissent that began to build in earnest one year ago when -- during a speech by Mahmud Ahmadinejad at Tehran University -- students in the crowd burned photos of the president and chanted, "Death to the dictator!" Similar, if less strident, rallies followed in May and October, with the authorities responding in each case by arresting activists.

On December 4, some 250 students at Tehran University gathered to chant slogans such as "Freedom and Equality!" and "No to war!" About 20 were arrested and sent to Tehran's Evin prison. Several were released but others are still being held, students say. Similar protests spread the next day to the cities of Hamadan, Isfahan, Mazandaran, Shiraz, and Kerman, where students reportedly openly criticized Iran's disputed nuclear program.

"Since the academic year began in October, the students' movements and activities have not stopped," Iraj Jamsheedi, an independent journalist, told RFE/RL from Tehran. "They've been ongoing, at different levels, at many universities across the country. It has become a trend. And unlike in the past, I don't think their activities will die down after a short while, because their demands reflect those of the majority of the Iranian people."

The authorities did not plan any official events at universities to mark Student Day, which commemorates the death of three students during protests in 1953. That is in sharp contrast to previous years when senior leaders, including Ahmadinejad, made a point of meeting with students. Iranian media said the authorities this year instead planned "happy events" for students, such as "placing flowers on martyrs' graves."

The students had different plans. Student Day this year fell at the start of the Muslim weekend on December 7, so organizers were expected to mount rallies on December 9.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry on December 8 reported detaining several people whom it accused of carrying false student-identification cards and planning an "illegal gathering" at Tehran University. The ministry alleged that the detainees were plotting "to create conflict, disturbances, and unrest" at the behest of "antigovernment groups."

An unspecified number of students with ties to the Office to Consolidate Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Wahdat, DTV), a leading reformist students' group, gathered at Tehran University on December 9 to protest the detention of their colleagues. A report by Reuters said photographs from the rally indicated protesters demanding the release of student detainees had damaged bars on one of the university's gates.

Bahar Hedayat, a member of the women's commission of the DTV, predicted ahead of Student Day that young people would protest. She said they would "demand their rights, including the right to academic freedom and publish journals reflective of their opinions. They also demand freedom for political and social organizations." Hedayat, speaking to RFE/RL from Tehran, said students also are calling more broadly for democratic change, improved human rights, and the release of students imprisoned for taking part in demonstrations.

Parents and relatives of students detained last week in Tehran were still seeking information about the fate of their children held at Evin prison. Nasreen Musavi told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that her daughter, Ilnaz, was arrested during the protest on December 4 and that the authorities have denied her any contact with her family or a lawyer. Another student, Ehsan Azadbar, said he was arrested during the rally along with his sister Azadeh, and that the authorities released him only after two days of interrogation. Azadeh remains in custody.

At least one student has been in prison since 1999. That year, Iran saw its largest student demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Thousands took part in demanding freedom. Clashes with police left five students dead. Similar scenes, on a smaller scale, were seen in 2003. With some shouting "Death to Khamenei!," the supreme leader who holds ultimate religious and political power under the constitution, thousands rallied against the perceived slow pace of change under then-President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist. Scores were arrested after clashes with police and radical Islamist vigilantes.

As the authorities sharpen their current crackdown, Hedayat says that she and other students know they risk arrest, expulsion from school -- even death for campaigning for change against the country's current leadership. "The more active the student movements become, the more intense will become the pressure from the authorities," Hedayat said.

But the latest protests will continue, she vowed, because Iranians "can no longer put up with the current political, economic, and social pressures."

(Farangis Najibullah is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

NATO ASSAULT CONTINUES IN SOUTHERN AFGHAN TALIBAN STRONGHOLD
Afghan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announced on December 9 that they are making steady progress in their assault on Musa Qala, a Taliban-controlled district in southern Helmand Province, Bakhtar News Agency reported. The Afghan National Army (ANA) in coordination with ISAF forces launched a major offensive on December 7 "to clean up" the district, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said at a joint press conference in Kabul with ISAF spokesman Carlos Branco on December 8. Azimi described Musa Qala as "a center of terrorists," and told reporters that the assault aimed to "kick the door in" so that Afghan troops, supported by the ISAF, could go through the strategic town, adding that "ANA is for the first time taking the lead in a major operation." Musa Qala has been controlled by Taliban insurgents since British forces pulled out in February. MM

UN ENVOY IN AFGHANISTAN DISCUSSES SECURITY WITH IRAN'S FOREIGN MINISTER
Tom Koenings, the UN envoy to Afghanistan, and Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki discussed security and reconstruction developments in Afghanistan on December 9, the "Tehran Times" reported. Mottaki expressed Iran's continued readiness to work with the United Nations to stabilize Afghanistan and concern over rising insecurity and drug production in the country, calling on "NATO forces to fulfill their main duty in establishing security in the country and help Afghans to take over the management of their country." Koenings reportedly thanked Iran for its support in resolving problems in Afghanistan, adding that achieving stability and security in Afghanistan is not possible without Iran's cooperation. MM

POSSIBLE 'SUPER ENVOY' CRITICAL OF 'FRACTURED' OPERATIONS IN AFGHANISTAN...
Lord Paddy Ashdown, the former UN high representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina, said in an interview with Sky television on December 9 that the failure to lead with a "single voice" the "fractured" processes in Afghanistan is wasting international resources and undermining the mission of coalition forces, Afghan and international media reported. He refused to comment on media reports that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has offered him the position of international envoy to Afghanistan, only saying that "I've always said that Afghanistan was more likely to succeed if the international community coordinated itself and spoke with a single voice," adding, "I said some time ago that I thought if we continued to be acting in a fractured fashion in Afghanistan we were more likely to lose than succeed and I still hold to that position." The two most senior UN and NATO representatives in Afghanistan are scheduled to leave the country by the end of this year, opening the way for a single overall figure to fill in the need. On December 7 in Brussels, a meeting of NATO foreign ministers reportedly discussed creating a possible position for a "super envoy" to coordinate military and civilian efforts better in Afghanistan. MM

...AS AFGHAN AMBASSADOR UNSURE ROLE EXISTS
Amid media reports that the UN is considering appointing a new "super envoy" to Afghanistan by the end of the year when the tenure of its current envoy, Koenings, expires, Afghan Ambassador to the UN Zahir Tanin rejected the suggestion on December 9, Bakhtar News Agency reported. "The idea is not on the table," Tanin said. "What we know is that the secretary-general is going to start formal discussions on choosing a new special representative in Afghanistan before the end of December." He added, "We were not approached for our stance on whether or not such an envoy should be appointed." While indicating the Afghan government's openness to any suggestion and support for better coordination among various facets of the international community's operations, Tanin said any formal proposal submitted to the elected Afghan government would be considered "within the framework of the constitution and the principle of sovereignty," suggested there is "an institutional problem with the idea of a super envoy or a high-level representative." MM

IRAN CONSIDERS NEXT ROUND OF TALKS WITH U.S. IN IRAQ
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on December 9 that Iran is considering the exact timing and diplomatic level of another round of talks on Iraqi security with U.S. officials in Baghdad, Radio Farda reported. Hosseini said the talks -- which would be the fourth such meeting -- are scheduled for January 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). Separately, Hosseini rejected the conclusions of a recent U.S. intelligence report stating that Iran stopped its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003, saying, "Iran has not had a military nuclear program at any level, not before 2003 nor afterwards, and any such claim rests on baseless speculation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 5 and 6, 2007). He said that the report has "shamed America before international opinion," and shows that negotiations over Iran's nuclear program must be taken away from "the gathering led by the Americans" and restored to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Radio Farda reported. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on December 8 that his ministry has written to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which handles U.S. interests in Iran, asking for an explanation on how the United States acquired the information on Iran's nuclear program discussed in the report, Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA. VS

TEHRAN STUDENTS DENOUNCE GOVERNMENT POLICIES
About 800 students gathered at Tehran University on December 9 to hear speeches and protest against "domestic and foreign warmongers," an apparent worsening of repression at universities, "inefficient" government policies, increasing poverty, and the detentions of students and dissidents, Radio Farda reported. The meeting was organized by the nationwide student grouping Office to Consolidate Unity (DTV). One speaker, Mehdi Arabshahi, said that students are seeking "academic freedoms" and the release of several detained "leftist" students (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007). Another participant, Bahareh Hedayat, told Radio Farda that the DTV is investigating the possible arrest of two students that day by university security officers. The Intelligence Ministry announced on December 8 that it arrested an unspecified number of people who posed as students and tried to hold an illegal gathering at Tehran University, Radio Farda and Iranian media reported. A ministry statement alleged that those arrested are "enemies of the system and members of deviant currents" intent on disrupting the public peace. The reports did not specify when the arrests were made. Radio Farda reported on December 8 that 22 students are thought to have been detained in Tehran in the preceding week. VS

MINISTRY TO RAISE IRANIANS' GASOLINE ALLOWANCE
Oil Minister Gholamreza Nozari said in Tehran on December 9 that Iranian drivers will be allotted 120 liters of subsidized gasoline a month from December 22, up from their current 100-liter allowance sold to them by the state at subsidized prices, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media reports. But he said Iranians will not for now be allowed to buy more gasoline at free-market prices, as some have urged. Iran restricted gasoline consumption in June to cut waste and imports costs, but legislation initially called for the state to allow Iranians to buy additional gasoline above the monthly quota at higher prices. The government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, however, no longer supports implementing that provision. Nozari said on the sidelines of an energy seminar that day that sanctions have had little effect on Iran's crude production, which he put at a daily 4.15 million barrels, with a capacity to produce 4.3 million barrels. VS

INCREASE NOTED IN HIV/AIDS CASES IN IRANIAN HOLY CITY
The number of Iranians diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has nearly doubled to 324 in the past two years in Qom, the main center of religious studies south of Tehran, Radio Farda reported on December 8, citing agency reports. The provincial health department reported that there were 177 HIV patients in the Qom district in November-December of 2005, up from 22 in late 2002. Iranian news agencies quoted Amir Akbari, the head of the Qom provincial health-care department, as warning that the increase shows a greater incidence of the virus spreading through sex, rather than through the use of infected needles by drug addicts. The shared use of needles remains the primary cause of HIV infections in Iran, but health experts have intermittently warned that its young population must receive safe-sex information to avert a wave of new infections. Unmarried couples in Iran are forbidden to have sex. Of the latest HIV patients in Qom, reports indicate that about 40 percent were in the 25-34 age group, and Akbari said they are generally less educated people. He warned that the population must be informed to prevent infections occurring among even younger people. He added that the Qom district probably has about 1,300 HIV-positive residents, not all of whom have been diagnosed, Radio Farda reported. VS

IRANIAN DEPUTY MINISTER RESIGNS
The Fars news agency on December 7 reported the resignation of the Iranian deputy interior minister for police and security affairs, Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, countering earlier reports denying that he resigned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). Fars noted that Zolqadr's resignation has yet to be formally accepted, and that senior officials are trying to persuade him to remain in his post. Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi told students at Tehran University on December 8 that Zolqadr has "for some time" been asking to be relieved of his duties, either to pursue unspecified research work or to join the armed forces joint headquarters. Zolqadr is a senior officer of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. Purmohammadi said he does not want Zolqadr to leave his post, ISNA reported, but did not say whether his resignation has been accepted. Separately, Majid Ansarifard, a spokesman for the Agriculture Jihad Ministry -- the rural-development ministry -- on December 8 denied reports that Agriculture Jihad Minister Mohammad Reza Eskandari is also resigning, the ISCA news agency reported. He said Eskandari will speak to the press in coming days. VS

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER SAYS IRAQIS TO TAKE CONTROL OF AL-BASRAH THIS MONTH
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in Al-Basrah on December 9 that coalition forces will transfer control over security in the southern region to Iraqi forces "within two weeks," the BBC reported the same day. Some 4,500 British troops stationed in the governorate will work on training local Iraqi forces. Britain previously announced its intention to reduce its contingent to 2,500 troops by spring. Following the transfer of authority, British troops can only be called into action if Iraq formally requests assistance. Al-Basrah is the last of four southern governorates under British command since 2003 to be handed back to Iraqi control. KR

FORMER IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT ESCAPES CAPTURE
Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri escaped arrest in a village neighboring Tikrit on December 6, Salah Al-Din Deputy Governor Abdallah Husayn Jubarah announced December 8, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Jubarah said police found documents and diaries corroborating the former vice president's relationship with insurgent groups operating north of Baghdad. Among the documents was an original copy of a plan to break into the Badush Prison. Dozens of gunmen stormed the prison in Mosul on March 6 and freed 141 detainees, mostly insurgents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). KR

IRAQI POLICE CHIEF ASSASSINATED, NINAWAH GOVERNORATE COUNCIL HEAD TARGETED
Babil police chief Colonel Qays al-Ma'muri was assassinated in the south-central governorate on December 9, Iraqi media reported. Al-Ma'mui's motorcade was targeted by a roadside bomb, along with his driver and a bodyguard. Several other bodyguards were injured in the attack. State-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported that al-Ma'muri was en route to check preparations for an awakening council meeting when the attack occurred. Meanwhile, Hisham al-Hamdani, the head of the Ninawah Governorate Council, escaped an assassination attempt in Mosul on December 9, when insurgents targeted his motorcade with a roadside bomb. KR

IRAQ MARKS HUMAN RIGHTS DAY
In a speech marking Human Rights Day in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said that protection of human rights is his governments primary agenda, the state-run Al-Iraqiyah news channel reported on December 9. "I have always said that human rights depend on how much those calling for them adhere to them," al-Nuri said. "Human rights do not absolve people from their obligations and responsibilities. These principles do not even give people immunity against punishment because punishing the wrongdoers is one of the rights of others. We should not look at the issue from one point of view only. Rather, we have to view both aspects." KR

IRAQI INTERIOR MINISTRY TO TRACK BA'ATH PARTY CELLS
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani announced on December 9 that the ministry has a force of 3,000 undercover policemen working to track cells affiliated with the defunct Ba'ath Party, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Speaking alongside Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim al-Ubaydi, al-Bulani said the force will target elements of the Al-Awdah (The Return) group. Members of the Ba'ath Party reorganized under the name Al-Awdah and were reported in October 2006 to be attempting to influence politics in Mosul. It is not clear if the party is registered with the Iraqi government. Nor is it clear whether it is active in other parts of the country. KR

IRAQI TRIBAL LEADERS MEET IN AL-BASRAH
Chieftains from the Southern Arabs Tribes Council met in Al-Basrah on December 8 and called for the Iraqi government to set a timetable for the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Council head Kazim Abd al-Wahid al-Unayzan told conference participants that Iraq should work to preserve its Arab identity; demand withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq; work to prevent the formation of regions, which will weaken national unity; revise the draft oil and gas law; reestablish the Iraqi Army along national lines; rebuild the holy places in Samarra and other areas; pay compensation to displaced families; and award the tribes a role in restoring national unity. In an interview with the news channel, al-Unayzan provided background on the establishment of the council and the conference: "The conference was formed by 600 personalities from southern Iraq, including 74 tribal chieftains on July 10, 2007. The chieftains decided to assert their Arab identity and [membership] in the Arab nation. This is because the south is now under the influence of the intelligence agencies of neighboring countries. Acts of killing and displacement are continuing in the south.... Twenty-four tribal chieftains were assassinated in southern Iraq," as well as scientific figures, journalists, and artists. He said the council will assert itself and "prove to the neighboring countries that Iraq is an integral part of the Arab nation." KR

IRAQI KURDISH LEADER RETURNS HOME, CALLS PRESS REPORTS 'LIES'
Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani told reporters in Irbil on December 8 that he was on a private trip to Austria and denied reports that he left Iraq following an assassination attempt, Kurdistan Satellite TV reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). "I had a simple dental treatment that needed to be completed there," Barzani said. Referring to press reports of a possible assassination attempt, he said: "If we are expected to answer those fabricated reports ever time [the appear in the press], we would not be able to do anything else. They were blatant lies that were not actually worth answering." KR

IRAQI INSURGENT GROUP REVERTS TO PREVIOUS NAME
The Ansar Al-Sunnah Army announced on December 7 that it has decided to use its previous moniker, Ansar Al-Islam. The group did not give any definitive reason for the change in its announcement, which came in the form of a statement accompanied by a video. However, it appears the name change is as an attempt by the group to distance itself from a splinter group known as the Ansar Al-Sunnah Legal Commission, which joined the Jihad and Reform Front and the newly formed Political Council for Iraqi Resistance. The statement was signed by the group's emir, Abu Abdallah al-Shafi'i, who previously used the name Abu Abdallah al-Hasan bin Mahmud. Ansar Al-Islam, originally known as Jund Al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), changed its name to the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army in late 2003, but only announced the change in February 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2004). KR

IRAQI SUNNI LEADER DENIES DEFENDING AL-QAEDA
Harith al-Dari, the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, denied in a December 7 interview with Al-Jazeera television that he supports and defends Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The cleric, who is based in Jordan, has defended Al-Qaeda in several recent public statements (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report, December 7, 2007). "I am not defending Al-Qaeda," al-Dari claimed. "I am defending the resistance. The resistance in Iraq is targeted now. The so-called Awakening [a reference to awakening councils formed to fight Al-Qaeda], which collaborates with the occupation, is fighting everyone who carries arms against the occupation.... Let the world know this from me: the war declared now by the occupation in Iraq is against all factions of the Iraqi resistance." KR

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